A fresh ceasefire may provide some temporary relief for Palestinians but, as Donald Macintrye reports from Gaza City, there are doubts whether a new round of negotiations will prove any more successful than the last
Israel and Palestinian factions agreed to a new 72-hour ceasefire beginning at midnight on Sunday night to allow the resumption of negotiations in Cairo aimed at securing a durable end to the month-long conflict in Gaza.
Israel, however, continued launching air strikes well into the evening. Missiles from two drones set ablaze a Gaza City warehouse packed with inflammable cleaning materials. It was not clear whether anyone had been inside. The warehouse was 200 metres from the main hotel used by foreigners.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said negotiations during the new truce would be “the last chance” for a deal, while a senior Israeli government official said: “Israel has accepted Egypt’s proposal.”
Israeli negotiators will return to Cairo today to resume indirect talks with the Palestinians if the truce held, the official added.
Israel’s delegation returned home on Friday when negotiations reached deadlock. Hamas had rejected an extension of the previous three-day ceasefire, firing some rockets into southern Israel, which retaliated with air strikes that reportedly killed 10 Palestinians.
A new ceasefire will provide at least temporary relief to Gazans. About 1,900 people, the majority of them civilians, have been killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on 8 July. At least 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in Israel, following rocket fire from militant groups in Gaza.
Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in Gaza City that witnesses claimed was caused by an Israeli air strikeHowever, the latest news still leaves open the question of whether a new round of negotiations will be any more successful than the last. “What has been offered so far is not acceptable to us,” a prominent Hamas official, Mushir al Masri, told The Independent. “We are waiting for new offers.”
In several respects Hamas is in a much stronger position than it was before the war, when it looked increasingly unpopular inside Gaza and isolated outside it.
The closure, by an Egyptian government hostile to Hamas, of the smuggling tunnels that were Gaza’s lifeline through the first six years of Israeli blockade, was a catastrophe not only for civilian life here but for Hamas’s finances. Hamas, which had been collecting taxes of up to £25m a month on the huge smuggling operation, was left without even the cash to pay its 40,000 public employees. Since then, its ability to fight back militarily against Israel – much greater than in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – has created a deterrent capacity of its own.
The maze of tunnels that Hamas’s military wing is thought to have built beneath Gaza, affording maximum mobility and surprise, has made possible the prospect of an Israeli ground invasion deep into Gaza City, one that could cost hundreds of Israeli soldiers’ lives, not to mention rockets reaching as far as Haifa. “This resistance has impressed the Palestinian people,” said Mkhaima Abusada, the leading Gaza analyst at Al Azhar University.
But the stakes for Hamas in these negotiations are high, because of the need to show Gazans a gain from four weeks of appalling loss and destruction, including – but by no means limited to – 16,000 destroyed houses. That means lifting the siege, which every Gazan wants and which, in theory at least, the international community supports. “Homeless Palestinians will start turning against Hamas if it is not able to open the crossings and bring in construction materials,” said Mr Abusada.
Mushir Al Masri, speaking at Shifa Hospital, one of the few places in which Hamas leaders judge themselves safe, said a seaport remained “at the top of our demands”, saying the idea had gained “international acceptability”.
Mr Abusada pointed out that Hamas was not seeking immediate implementation of all its demands and would agree to international monitoring of any corridor for cargo ships. Hamas has already paved the way for security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed president of the Palestinian Authority, to police the Palestinian side of a re-opened southern Rafah crossing. This would be done under the aegis of the “unity government” it recently agreed with Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement – but which Benjamin Netanyahu denounced before the war. “Hamas does not want to be in charge in Gaza,” said Mr al Masri. “There is supposed to be a unity government.”
Israel has so far been determined to resist any concessions that Hamas could present as a victory. It is insisting on Hamas “demilitarisation” – something that Mr Abusada said Palestinians would not agree to without an end to occupation.
Israel could have avoided that dilemma by yielding to humanitarian pressure to lift the blockade on Gaza before this conflict started. It could have rewarded the anti-violence Mr Abbas by moving determinedly to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And, because the need to import construction materials is more urgent than it was before the war started, a refusal to allow in such materials would also flout the UN’s insistence that maintaining the blockade “is not a viable option”.
Nevertheless, in view of the Israeli stance before the ceasefire reports this weekend, Mr Abusada said: “I have to admit I am not optimistic that a solution is coming.”
If there is no agreement in Cairo, Egypt and Israel will have the satisfaction of having denied Hamas a victory.
But for Gaza’s 1. 8 million people it could mean many months of continued conflict – even if it was much more subdued than in the past month. But there would always be the prospect of another one like it in a year or two – and a return to the economic and social misery that has been Gaza’s fate in the periods when it is not actually being bombed and shelled.
If the Nobel Peace Prize can be handed to Obama, why not hand it to the Israeli Defence Force?
Is Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers, simply delusional?
Now I know that the Israeli Defence Forces are famous in song and legend. Humanitarian, courageous, self-sacrificing, restrained, willing to give their own lives for the innocents among their enemies, etc, etc. Leon Uris’s Exodus – a racist, fictional account of the birth of Israel in which Arabs are rarely mentioned without the adjectives “dirty” and “stinking” – was one of the best pieces of Socialist-Zionist propaganda that Israel could have sought. Even Ben Gurion agreed, claiming that it was “the greatest thing ever written about Israel”, although he correctly dismissed any literary qualities this nonsense might have possessed.
But when the Israeli ambassador to the US told us (after almost 2,000 Palestinians had been slaughtered, most of them civilians) that the Israeli army should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in the Gaza war, I had to glance at the calendar. Was it 1 April, perhaps? Was this some kind of gargantuan joke, so obscene, so grotesquely inappropriate, that it contained some inner meaning, some kernel of truth, which I had missed? The Nobel Prize for “unimaginable restraint”, according to Ron Dermer, should have been solemnly handed out to an army which much of the world believes guilty of war crimes.
Now of course, Ron was talking to a Washington summit of Christians United for Israel, and his audience, despite a bit of heckling, was receptive enough. After all, Christian fundamentalists in the US believe all Jews must convert to Christianity after the Battle of Armageddon, so they could certainly support a Nobel prize or two for the Israeli army’s “unimaginable” restraint. Oddly, I find myself more in awe of the word “unimaginable” – what does this mean, for heaven’s sake? – than the “restraint” which the West always begs of Israel when it is flattening villages and cities (along with their occupants) in its various civilisational wars. Besides, if the Nobel Peace Prize can be awarded to Obama – presumably for public-speaking – why not hand the wretched thing to the IDF after another bloody war?
But seriously. Is Dermer, one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers, simply delusional? At one point in his extraordinary address, he even referred to the RAF’s carpet-bombing of German cities in the Second World War – as if this was the template for Israel’s “restraint”. It was like the old Blair refrain that whatever mistakes we made in Iraq, we weren’t as bad as Saddam. Well, I should hope not. But then Dermer went on: “I especially will not tolerate criticism of my country at a time when Israeli soldiers are dying so that innocent Palestinians can live.” These soldiers, according to Dermer, were being sent “into the hornet’s nest of Palestinian terror” – but WERE TRYING TO SAVE “INNOCENT” PALESTINIAN LIVES!
Is the man delusional? Well, don’t jump to this conclusion too fast. At the height of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza two weeks ago, its embassy in Dublin posted images on its official Twitter feed of the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin’s fair city – dressed in a niqab, the long black Muslim headscarf! (excuse the exclamation mark) – but this was either racist or monumentally childish. Over the image – Malone’s statue stands outside my old university, Trinity College in Dublin – were plastered in capitals the words: “ISRAEL NOW, DUBLIN NEXT.”
In case you think this was only for Irish consumers, another picture, addressed to Paris, depicted the Mona Lisa in a hijab and holding a missile. For Italy, the Israelis provided a picture of Michelangelo’s David with a skirt made of explosives. Denmark received a picture of the Little Mermaid holding a huge gun. “Israel is the last frontier of the free world,” was written on each.
This is surely beyond delusional. This is insane. A week earlier, the Israeli embassy in Dublin tweeted a picture of Hitler with the words “Free Palestine Now!”. These insulting tweets were taken down, but not before the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Boaz Modai, had uttered the imperishable remark that “we are now in the middle of a war and I have other things to deal with”.
Well, you would have thought so, wouldn’t you? But alas, Modai, who has been a diplomat in London and the Holy See, was ambassador in Dublin more than two years ago when, at Christmas, his embassy’s Facebook page carried a post which said that if Mary and Jesus were alive today they would “probably end up being lynched by hostile Palestinians”. Accompanied by a picture of Jesus and Mary, the embassy’s comment read: “A thought for Christmas… If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…” Among the comments condemning this outrageous message was one which read: “Have you no regard for honesty whatsoever? If Jesus and Mary were alive today, they would be protesting against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, along with all the Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem.”
The embassy later took down the Facebook post, explaining that it was made “without the consent of the administrator of the page”, and cheerfully adding: “Apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Merry Christmas!”
I personally know several Israeli diplomats, one of whom – an experienced and retired ambassador whose family champion Palestinian rights – must be appalled at this tomfoolery. So are these ambassadors delusional? On balance, I fear not. I suspect they accurately represent a truly delusional government which is shaming the State of Israel.
Canada toes Netanyahu’s odious line
Meanwhile, back in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, more pro-Israeli than Netanyahu it seems, announced to his people that Canada would react to a “terrorist” in just the same way as Israel.
After the US condemned Israel for shelling a UN school sheltering 3,000 Palestinians, Harper, as my old friend Haroon Siddique wrote in the Toronto Star, “showed no compassion”. Instead, Harper announced: “We hold the terrorist organisation Hamas responsible for this. They have initiated this conflict and continue to seek the destruction of Israel.”
It might have come from the pages of Leon Uris’s old paperback. Maybe it did, because even Canadian Liberals under Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, have pathetically lined up behind Harper’s Conservatives. But given the exchange rate for casualties this past month – around one Israeli for every 28 Palestinians – I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone recommends the rocket-firing and corrupt Hamas for the Nobel Peace Prize, on account of its “unimaginable restraint”.